I had never heard of Flanders and Swann before I saw the publicity that announced Tim Fitzhigham and Duncan Walsh-Atkins’ revival being performed in Oxford this Saturday, and yet within seconds of watching one of their videos online I felt like I recognised them. The musical comedy duo, Flanders and Swann, singer and accompanist respectively, sing whilst at the same time talking in pleasant voices; a small scale Gilbert and Sullivan. The jokes in the songs I looked at on Youtube were quaint but also faintly risqué: in ‘Madeira M’dear’ an old man uses madeira to seduce a young woman, while in ‘A Song of Patriotic Prejudice’ national snobberies about the differing regions of the U.K end up nonetheless satirising the casual xenophobe himself. Others contained pure silliness reminiscent of Monty Python. But I was intrigued to meet Tim Fitzhigham, who plays the role of Flanders and comes from a very successful comedy background (he has won numerous accolades in performances at Edinburgh), to discover why now was the moment for a revival of this particular act, and what the act’s wider relation to contemporary and past comedy might be.
Tim reveals that he has been acquainted with Flanders and Swann for a very long time. “‘The Canoe Song’ by Flanders and Swann is my earliest childhood memory apart from swallowing paint. I think my parents must have loved it. I guess there was an album in the house and I must have started listening to it then.” I ask him then what prompted him to perform their work professionally as an adult. “Well Duncan and I were asked to do a charity concert by Duncan’s Granny, who used to be a dancer, and had this kind of fantastic west end turn of phrase, although she kind of fitted in nowhere [living in] Sussex. She used to raise money for the local cottage hospital and we did Noel Coward one year, ‘cause we were working on a Noel Coward review, and then the next year she said, ‘Darlings, I don’t think I can guarantee a house again for Noel Coward, I just don’t think I can hold the seats’. And so we sat down and I said to Duncan, ‘Why not Flanders and Swann? I’ve always loved them,’ and Duncan said. ‘Ahh, I’ve always loved them.’” This partnership led not just to fruitful artistic performances but also a concrete development for the community: ”The Plaster Cutter at the cottage hospital was entirely the result of these two charity nights.” The success went from there as it turned out that there was a wide interest in Flanders and Swann.
I was interested to ask whether the success of their version of Flanders and Swann was due to a recent surge in interest for musical comedy, as with performers such as Bill Bailey and Tim Minchin; or instead more nostalgia for the past. “I think it is certainly both of those things, but I think also thirdly let’s not underestimate these songs are just funny. They are really funny songs. The banter is good and people just do like hearing funny, well put-together, brilliantly crafted lyrics and great musical numbers. And I think Michael and Donald were some of the best we have ever had at that.” Fitzhigham views the songs as empirically good in themselves, citing Donald’s (Swann’s) gift as a composer and Michael’s as a lyricist. But there does seem to be a nostalgia element that drives people to the shows: there are few places to see what used to be such an important act. “People who have heard Flanders and Swann want to hear him done right. There is not that much television footage of Flanders and Swann and not that much cinematic footage either. Flanders and Swann’s shows were released as cinema reels when they finished touring them – that is sort of how big they were. And you think that now we don’t have an act, probably globally, apart from some of the American acts who can do a tour in the theatre and then finish the tour and say lets do a cinema release now.”
The transition from such popularity to being almost unknown among young people seems to demand an explanation. “I think it is the fact that Flanders and Swann were famous at just the wrong time for television. So they didn’t really do television. So every time you get all these countdowns that everyone watches on the television: Flanders and Swann simply weren’t in them. They were touring the world and playing massive theatres when no one had a television set.” But the fact that, because of technology, Flanders and Swann do not play a role in our collective memories of comedy means that we have a poorer understanding of how comedy has changed. “If you look at Noel Coward, and you see a single guy sitting at a piano singing really fast sort of patter comedy songs, and you look at Peter Cook and ask yourselves, ‘How did comedy go from Noel Coward to Peter Cook? How did that happen? What is the missing link?’ The answer is Flanders and Swann. So if people like comedy, and like knowing how it came together, Flanders and Swann are a vital missing link.”
The relevance of Flanders and Swann to the Oxford student is not limited to their importance in the development of musical comedy, but they were also both Oxford students (as indeed Duncan did). Fitzhigham remarks, “Donald was an Oxford man through and through. I would say not having been to Oxford like Michael, there is a lot of Oxford humour in there.” I worry, though, that this Oxford element might be old-fashioned and politically incorrect; and so venture to ask whether the work is politically incorrect and a bit out of its time, especially Madeira M’dear. “I think one has to be sensitive about these things. There’s nothing in there I couldn’t hand on heart explain away. I think we’ve all seen doddery old men trying to pursue younger women.” I question him about the arguably xenophobic ‘A Song of Patriotic Prejudice’. “At the beginning of the song you they are just going into English xenophobia, but by the end of the song you’re very clear that what they are actually saying is that everybody thinks they are slightly better than someone else, that they are using a stereotype to make someone become aware of their own foibles, and that is comedy. Rather than being a politically outdated song or a politically incorrect song, it becomes the most politically correct song. They were doing things that perhaps even the audience at the time didn’t quite get. It certainly is a joy for a modern audience to see quite how far thinking they are.”
Swann and Flanders are lucky to have two professionals with such a passion for them to be around today to perform their work. It is not just nostalgia which should draw us to the comedy of two Oxford students from more than half a century ago, but also their modern appeal.
Flanders and Swann: Homage to musical comedy greats is on at the Oxford Playhouse this Saturday